Clocking up food miles

Clive Aslet Financial Times - February 23/24, 2002 (abridged)

There will be empty jam jars when children in the south of England go looking for frogs' spawn this spring. Britain's frogs - especially those in the vicinity of London - are in a bad way, with the spread of a virus that causes their toes and legs to fall off. They seem to have caught the virus from goldfish imported from the US, where gold�fish farmers are in the habit of blasting bullfrogs with shotguns; the goldfish then pick up or carry the virus present in the bullfrogs.

It was perhaps significant that newspapers carried this story on the day Sir Donald Curry's report into the Future of Farming was published in the UK.

Some of rural England's woes are home-grown. While scientists are uncertain about the origins of BSE, or "mad cow disease", there is, alas, no doubt that it is a British dis�ease. But other diseases have been brought in from abroad. In 1999, the swine fever that devastated pig farms in East Anglia may have arrived in a salami sandwich, discarded in a field and gobbled up by a hungry porker. It is still not certain where last year's �4bn epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease originated, but it must have been somewhere outside the European Union.

No wonder that high on the list of Sir Donald's recommendations is the promotion of locally-produced food. Localisation, as opposed to globalisation, is likely to become something of a mantra for the food industry. It is a motherhood and apple issue.

Whatever the realities of food distribution, no one, not even the big supermarkets, can say they oppose it . . .

(F)armers' markets, the first of which was started in Bath in 1997, have pro�liferated at an astonishing rate: there are now more than 300. Demand for organic pro�duce far outstrips the 3 per cent of British agriculture that supplies it. Once, farmhouse ice-cream, home-cured bacon and British goat's cheese would have been rarities; now the internet is awash with them. Rare breeds are being taken off the endangered list.

Supporters of local food hope there may be a parallel with the Campaign for Real Ale. When Camra began in the 1970s, tradition�ally brewed British beer seemed on the point of extinction, as the gaseous industrially produced alternative usurped its place at the beer handles . . .

A public whose confidence in food has been battered by successive crises - salmo�nella in eggs, pesticides in carrots, BSE in beef, genetic modification in cereals - has understandably erected health into a totem. While costly government action generally follows each media outcry, Parliament does not always have the foresight to limit risk in advance.

The Suffolk farmer *Lady Cranbrook, a spokeswoman for the Country Landowners Association, is hardly everyone's idea of a raging Genoa-style envi�ronmentalist. But she believes Britain is lucky to have escaped with just foot-and-mouth disease in the most recent catastrophe. Foot-and-mouth is not a disease that generally attacks people, but imagine what could happen if the next epidemic is of a "zoonosis" - a disease that crosses the species barrier from animals into humans. Zoonoses, which include Aids, Ebola and Lassa fever, are extremely unpleasant and often fatal . . . So, given that British demand for meat could be supplied wholly by home production, is it sensible to go on importing beef and chicken from regions of the world that are (a breeding ground for killer plagues)?

. . . Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, believes the gov�ernment should remember the costs picked up elsewhere in society when a cheap food policy - driven by imports - is pursued. The bill at the supermarket check-out does not show the amount that may be spent by the National Health Service in rectifying the consequences of food poisoning or unhealthy diet.

If Lang is right this is just one of many "externalities" in the global food economy. Another is the hidden cost of transport. Lang cites a German study of strawberry yoghurt that found the ingredients in a l50g pot of yoghurt had travelled 1,005km.

"The strawberries came from Poland, yoghurt from north Germany, corn and wheat flour from the Netherlands, jam from West Germany and sugar beet from east Ger�many. The aluminium for use on the cover came 300km. Only the milk and glass jar were local to Stuttgart, where theoretically the yoghurt 'came from'."

Between 1978 and 1999, the distance trav�elled by food in Britain, before being sold to the end consumer, rose by 50 per cent. Our reliance on road transport to replenish supermarkets was vividly demonstrated in September 2000, when a blockade of fuel depots by disgruntled hauliers and farmers protesting against the cost of fuel caused an unexpectedly rapid emptying of supermarket shelves.

Typical ingredients in a family meal may have travelled thousands of miles before reaching the plate. Calabrese is flown in from Guatemala, runner beans from Zambia, even turnips and onions come from New Zealand. Environmentalists deplore the energy this trade expends. The environmental pressure group Sustain says: "For every calorie of carrot flown in from South Africa, we use 66 calories of fuel."

Ironically, organic produce can, in this respect at least, be just as environmentally damaging as the conventional equivalent, given that as much as 70 per cent of the organic market is imported into the UK.

Needless to say, the carbon dioxide emis�sions associated with so many "food miles" contribute to the gases that are supposed to be causing global climate change. In turn, climate change is likely to affect the world's capacity to produce food. Scientists cannot predict exactly what will happen, but it is possible that some of the bread baskets of the world will become less productive, and low-lying coastal areas could flood. While Britain, along with the rest of the EU, has taken a leading role in the

negotiations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions around the world, the govern�ment appears not to have made the connec�tion with farmland.

If government-approved scenarios about climate change are correct, farmland could again become the vital strategic resource that it was during the Second World War. The country may then regret its relaxation of planning policies, the abandonment of fields to scrub and the decay of British agriculture.

Meanwhile, a policy that, in effect, exports much of the agricultural production to devel�oping countries that could take place at home is depriving those countries of the farmland needed to feed their own people.

According to Lang, Brazil has one of the worst child malnutrition rates in the world, but devotes millions of acres to growing